Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Is God a User?

There is a certain phrase prevalent among Christians (particularly a certain 'flavour' of Christians) which comes under what I call Christian Jargon-ese. Now this phrase is something I never really thought about or worried about until Adventure Bloke wrote his most excellent Master's Thesis. As I began to read his notes and engage with the subject I realised that the phrase was sitting more and more uncomfortably with me.

I therefore would like to issue a challenge to my Christian friends who find themselves using this language. Do the words 'God can use you' or 'God uses anyone' or 'God used me' (and so on) ever creep into conversation? Read a good many Christian books and you will find these words oft repeated. The thing is, the words are used <no pun intended> with all good intentions. The premise behind the language is of God loving us so much God works through each of us, whatever our gifts are. But I would like to look beyond the intention and examine the language a little.

Now, imagine you see the words 'he used her' in a newspaper article. What would be the emotion coming to mind? Would it be positive? No, because the phrase in common usage means something entirely different. When somebody is 'used' it usually means they are 'abused', 'discarded', 'worthless'. Hardly feelings we would like to be associated with how God sees us. The verb 'to use someone' is in fact incredibly rarely describing a positive event. It is much more often telling a story of brokenness, of rejection.

So where do we get it, and why do we say it? You may be surprised to find out that the bible never once tells of God 'using' somebody. Nothing. Nada. God working with, yes. God loving, even more. But using? Never.

What do our friends who don't share our beliefs think if they hear this language? Society pretty much only uses this verb with negative connotations attached. So banding round phrases such as 'God has used you so much!' may be having the opposite effect to what is intended. Who, after all, wants to be 'used?' (and my dear friends who are not Christians, I would love to hear your opinions on this :))

Now, one problem lies in the language, what we really mean, and how we can say it. I was talking with a dear friend the other day about this issue and we were sharing how easily it is said and how we need to find alternatives. We decided that a positive and meaningful alternative was possibly 'God partners with us.' This is a powerful representation of God working with us, God seeing us as valuable and giving us the choice to surrender to him so he can partner with us. Almost breathtakingly simple? Some of you, however, may be thinking about how 'God using me' language reflects us being totally open to God, saying for example 'I am totally giving my life to God, so I invite God to 'use' me however he wants.' Again, the intention works, and it can be difficult to find language that does the same job, but I still think it remains problematic. How can we say that God loves us and uses us in the same sentence? Can a God who loves be a God who uses? Well yes, if you say that 'uses' merely means God graciously working within what we have invited God to do. But no, if we want to engage with those around us and respect what such language may feel like to them.

I think there is another aspect to this too, something on a deeper scale. I wonder if the wording 'God can use us' implies that 'we need to be useful.' And I wonder if there is an unacknowledged presumption at the heart of it; a presumption that says 'we can only be used if we are useful', ie God can only work with us and through us if we are doing, if we are being of use in some way. Society reflects this to a certain extent - how many of us find that the first thing we are asked is 'what do you do?' From the point of view of someone who doesn't 'do' an awful lot due to illness, this can be destroying. And to wonder if I cannot be used by God because I cannot be useful, because I am Invalid, is a dark and scary kind of pattern of thought. Yet I think there is a subconscious level at which this does happen.

So I challenge you (and me): Chuck out the 'use' and chuck out the 'useful'. Let's liberate ourselves from the expression which may only be viewed negatively by some, and which may be at the root of insecurity for many followers of Christ. Let's be partners with God. How amazing would that be?

These are my very unformed thoughts, and I could witter for a while yet, but will stop here for now. I am fascinated by this issue and would be interested to hear thoughts on this, even those that tell me not to be so daft and over-thinking ;)

So, I wonder what other Christian Jargon-ese should go into Room 101? Answers on a postcard....


  1. Great post, Liz! I would like to nominate "The Lord led me" or at least forbid it to be used by any one person more than once a day.

  2. Since chatting with Tim a year or so ago, I've avoided using the phrase, opting instead for "God working through" people. I like "partnering with" though.

    Into Room 101? A much heard question while I was in Uganda - adressed to Christians - "are you born again". What they really meant, was "are you a real Christian?" Ugh!

  3. good post -its one of those phrases that grates on me too - for its complete lack of meaning and because it carries with it a real sense of passivity which is very unhelpful, for those both in & outside of the church!
    Encouraging a sense of active participation in Missio dei is not helped at all by the phrase.

    into room 101 for me would also go use of the word " folk"
    "worship" applied to just the music
    as in " we stand now for a time of worship"
    and overuse of "fellowship" and a complete ban on its use as a verb.

    oh and "unchurched" ugh ugh ugh....

    that'll do for now!

  4. fibrefairy - "unchurched" is an age-old verb
    and valid.

    it comes from the service in the Book of Common Prayer where a woman is allowed back into church after giving birth.
    the service is called "the Churching of women" - so an unchurched woman is one who hasn't gone through that service.

  5. quoting wikipedia, i'm afraid!

  6. oh gosh I know that! but in its current usage (describing those with no contact or background with the church) its awful, *especially* with that historical background which carried with it connotations of uncleanliness (stemming from the Levitical code)Its not a practice followed to day, nor is it one that has currency ( otherwise we'd be keeping menstruating women from church too)

    Do we REALLY want to describe those outside the church in those terms? do we? I don't think it's what who ever coined the phrase had in mind at all.
    Aside from that IMO it's a "ugly" word defining by negative, and sounding far too like "the great unwashed" !!

  7. Yes! Preach it sister!
    I still like the idea of partnering with God best. I believe Scripture is full of people who agree to partner with God. And God, because he is LOVE, never never never forces anyone, nor does he impose himself. That is because he is not after robots, but after lovers!

  8. Excellent post Liz. Don't think I use this term, but who knows? I will keep myself in check in future though.

    Lovely to see you have started a blog.

    Mich x